Wilma Shahan was asleep when the window above her bed blew in, showering her with glass.
“I thought a car ran into the house,” she said on Wednesday, a few hours after the dead-of-night fireball in Port Neches. “It was a loud explosion, so loud it busted my hearing aids.”
Still, it was just a close call for the Shahans and an estimated 38,000 others who live within a 3-mile radius of the plant. Three schools, two churches and a library are within a mile. Thirty percent of residents are 17 or younger. Had the first blast occurred at, say, 1 p.m. instead of 1 a.m., many more folks would have been in harm’s way.
Roger Wallace’s granddaughter might have been playing with her toys, which he kept in the utility room of his townhouse on Merriman Street. Instead, she was asleep in another room when the blast blew out the front window and tore the utility-room door from its hinges.
The Avenue Coffee Cafe wasn’t open yet, so no one was there having a morning cup when the blast tore through. It was relatively easy for co-owner David Pool to sweep up the glass and put a pot on afterward.
Three workers inside the plant were injured and at least five people who live beyond the fence line were hit by shattered glass. The worst-case scenarios are hard to ponder.
“Had this happened during day time or during school hours, we could have seen far more injuries than we did,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of the Environment Texas advocacy group. “I guess you can say it’s a silver lining to the accident (or) blind luck there wasn’t even more damage than it did cause.”
The Trump administration on Thursday reversed a series of chemical safety regulations created in response to a 2013 explosion in West, Texas that killed 15, injured more than 200 and flattened much of the farming community south of Dallas.
Under the new rule, companies will not have to do third-party audits or a root-cause analysis after an incident. They also will not have to provide the public access to information about what type of chemicals are stored in these facilities either.
Among the reasons cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for the rule reversal were potential security risks in disclosing chemical plant inventories and facility locations to the public, the economic cost for companies to follow the rules, and reducing “unnecessary regulations.”
“Accident prevention is a top priority of the EPA and this rule promotes improved coordination between chemical facilities and emergency responders, reduces unnecessary regulatory burdens, and addresses security risks” arising from past changes to risk management rules, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a written statement.
The agency estimate the changes would save “Americans roughly $88 million per year,” by rescinding all accident prevention program provisions.
The Houston area is home to more than 2,500 chemical facilities. A 2015 Houston Chronicle investigation found there’s a major chemical incident in the greater Houston area every six weeks. So far this year, there’s been at least four chemical fires in the Houston area, including one at a tank storage facility in Deer Park, where it took more than an hour for some emergency personnel to know what hazardous chemical was burning.
Harris County and the state have filed several lawsuits against the companies over environmental violations, in addition to those filed by residents and workers who claim they were affected by the incidents.
Already at risk of extinction, the monarch butterflies that flutter through Texas on their way to Central Mexico face yet another formidable predator: deadly traffic.
Millions of monarchs die on the state’s highways as they collide with vehicles while flying low. A grant from the Texas Department of Transportation’s Research and Technology Implementation division hopes to help Texas A&M University researchers identify the location and extent of so-called roadkill hot spots to better understand why it happens and find ways to mitigate it.
“The population that is moving through Texas, however large or small, that population is going to determine what the spring migration population looks like,” said Robert Coulson, professor in the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M. “So any mortality variation that affects that fall population, particularly at this stage of the migration, is extremely important.”
The population of the iconic orange and black insect with white spots along the edges, described by some as American as apple pie, has declined more than 80 percent in the last two decades. Part of it is due to the use of pesticides, development and global climate change, which undermines stable weather conditions and predictable flowering seasons the butterflies need to complete their migration, according to researchers.
When flames broke out at a Deer Park chemical storage terminal last spring, sending a plume of smoke into the air that was visible for miles, firefighters spent days spraying foam over the smoldering tanks to put out the blaze. Then a dike wall failed, releasing tens of thousands of gallons of water mixed with foam into the Houston Ship Channel.
Now researchers are focusing on the lingering presence of these “forever chemicals” in local waterways and their potential health effects.
Months after the incident, researchers still found traces of the perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAs, in the area, although little is known about their long-term impacts on humans and aquatic life.
“Unlike air pollution, where after the fire is out and the smoke is gone air pollution levels return back to normal (within a week or two) after the incident, in this case it took a month or two for the ship channel and surrounding waterways to really go back to ‘normal’ levels of these compounds,” said Weihsueh Chiu, professor at Texas A&M.
Researchers presented their findings and talked about the environmental impacts of the ITC fire Monday in Seabrook.
It was close to the beginning of the school year when Myrna Sonia Garcia opened her daily e-mail: it was red, which meant the air quality was “unhealthy.”
The Parker Elementary School nurse hadn’t seen a “red” day in a while. And as the only nurse for 912 students — 66 with diagnosed asthma — she worried about the new kindergartners whose medical histories she didn’t know well enough yet. She had to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
As she does every day, she made an announcement over the school’s speakers to let teachers know how healthy the air was. They needed to be especially vigilant regarding students with asthma, she warned them, just as she had to make sure those who needed medication took it prior to going outside. On days when ground-level ozone is high or unhealthy, Houston Independent School District schools are directed to limit prolonged exercise for all children. And when it reaches purple, or “very unhealthy,” students are to avoid outdoor activity, especially if they have heart or lung disease.
For schools, having access to accurate and timely information about air pollution is vital, officials said, as it can mean the difference between managing a respiratory illness and having to call 911.
“Having poor air quality changes the school’s day,” said Gwendolyn Johnson, HISD’s director of health and medical services. “It’s all about the planning.”
Houston city officials and university researchers are using technology to better and more accurately inform the community when air quality might be particularly concerning for the most vulnerable.